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No Icing on This Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $25.95)

“I wondered what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know.   What family he lived in.   My mind wandered around.”

This novel begins with a charming and unique premise.   A young girl, Rose Edelstein, finds that by eating food prepared by others she can taste (experience) the moods and feelings of the preparers.   This has particular relevance when it comes to her mother’s sadness, but later her guilt.   Her mother is having an affair, the knowledge of which Rose wishes she did not possess.

“The guilt in the beef had been like a vector pointing in one direction…  I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will.   Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life…  I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.”

This discomfort on the part of our protagonist also affects the reader; at least, it affected this reader.   Rose has been given a power she does not want and it makes  her life messy and unpleasant.   At one point, early in the story, she is hospitalized after raving about wanting to get rid of her mouth.   If she didn’t have her mouth in her face, she wouldn’t have to eat and wouldn’t have to feel what others are feeling.

“Over the course of several packed days, I’d tasted my mother’s affairs and had (a) conversation with my father…  I was not feeling good about any of it…”

Rose has a boring attorney father, a brother who isolates and who is soon departing for college, and an unhappy mother who regularly disappears for a couple of hours of errands – which is when she meets her lover.   She lives in a household of people who hardly communicate; people who regularly ask questions of each other that go unanswered.   This also applies to others in Rose’s life.   For example, she asks her Spanish teacher, “How was your weekend?” before her instructor turns away and walks off to roam the aisles of the junior high school classroom.

Aimee Bender’s writing style is clipped; words often appear to be missing from sentences, from paragraphs, from pages.   Maybe the words are missing because, in this imaginary world, humans simply don’t understand each other – relatives or strangers – and therefore, are not competent about talking, listening, responding.   Perhaps the oddest of all things is that this story is not set in an isolated small town (Mayberry, if you will).   No, it is set in an earlier day Los Angeles, where mega communication was already the order of the day.

There must be an intended message buried somewhere in this 292-page novel that I missed.   After its charming opening pages, Lemon Cake seemed to immediately bog down.   It read more like a novella or an overly extended short story than a true novel.

Perhaps I just don’t have the taste for this recipe.   Lemon Cake left me feeling empty and sad and confused and hungry for something with some heft.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Over Under Sideways Down

Fragile: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

“The sins of a family always fall on the daughter.”   P.F. Sloan

“She already knew the hard edges of the world, knew that life disappointed and that most people’s dreams never did come true.”   Lisa Unger

This one is a stunner.   In Fragile, author Lisa Unger tells the story of four fragile lives that are joined together by events separated by twenty years.   Unger’s genius is in plotting the story so that the reader never knows what’s coming next.

The story starts with a look-in at what appears to be a crime being committed, although the facts are not clear.   What is clear is that a young woman, Charlene, has gone missing.   She intended to run away from her sleepy community, The Hollows, in New York State in order to make music in Manhattan.   But she’s suddenly fallen off the face of the earth.

The residents of The Hollows, including the young woman’s mother and her boyfriend Ricky’s parents, are forced to revisit their memories of a high school girl named Sarah who disappeared two decades earlier.   She was found dead, mutilated; a crime to which a male classmate confessed.   But the young man who said he killed her was troubled and perhaps mentally unstable.   He went on to spend years in state prison, before he died by his own hand.

With this background we fear that Charlene has been abducted or murdered by the evil force or forces that killed Sarah.   Charlene’s mother was a classmate of Sarah’s, as was Ricky’s mother, Maggie, and his police detective father.   These adults are all keeping secrets about their lives both now and at the time that Sarah was killed.

Others in the community also know things about the events surrounding the past crime, but they’re not talking.   The residents of The Hollows become frozen with the fear that they are reliving a nightmare and decide to hide rather than speak.   With little information to go on, the local police force begins to suspect Ricky’s involvement in Charlene’s disappearance.   Charlene did, after all, stand him up on the night she left home and had informed her friends about another boyfriend in New York City.

As the tale proceeds, we see that there are no perfect families in The Hollows.   The parents criticize their children for doing the very things they did when they were young, and this simply piques the desire of the young to escape as soon as they can.   The current mystery, the apparent crime that surrounds the disappearance of Charlene, will only be solved by confessions.   Because there may very well be links between what may have happened to Charlene and what happened “twenty years time ago” to Sarah.

“As  she told them all about her buried memory, she felt an awe at how all their separate lives were twisted and tangled, growing over and around one another…  And how the connections between them were as terribly fragile as they were indelible.”

There will be no hints here – no spoiler alerts needed – as to the fates of Charlene and Ricky, except to note that Unger convinces us that everything in life is so well-connected (if hardly explainable).   The past is, indeed, prelude.   This is a read that will stay with you.

Unique, stunning.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Fragile was released on August 3, 2010.

 

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Bone Chilling

The Bone Thief: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (William Morrow, $24.99, 359 pages)

The authors of this true-to-life, crime scene investigation novel are a team:  Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson.   Together they write as Jefferson Bass, in the same fashion that Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child write as Preston Child.  

Bass and Jefferson have written several novels based on the work of Dr. Bass, who is a highly respected forensic anthropologist.   In these novels, unlike the CSI shows on television, there is no criminology practiced that relies on magic technological crime-fighting equipment dreamed up by a screenwriter.   The characters in The Bone Thief  must employ intellect, observation, and plain old footwork to solve a most perplexing series of body part thefts.

Dr. Bill Brockton, the chief protagonist, is a forensic anthropologist who works at the University of Tennessee managing the Body Farm, where the decomposition of human remains is studied.   He and his research assistant Miranda Lovelady (a name that’s a bit overly obvious) are drawn into a mystery involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation, while at the same time they’re on a quest to find a fresh set of hands for a colleague who received a massive dose of radiation while performing an autopsy.   The surgeon’s skillful hands are being destroyed by the radiation he encountered.

The story here is told in the first person by Dr. Brockton.   The underlying theme of the tale is Brockton’s introspection on choices he and others make, relationships and human frailty.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   It is said that there is a real-life Body Farm managed by Dr. Bass. 

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A Simple Question

A Simple Question, Not So Easily Answered by Joseph Arellano

One seemingly easy question facing a book reviewer is – When should a book review be published?   Yet the answer varies greatly – and surprisingly – in the publishing industry.   I say surprisingly because I once wrote music reviews for a college newspaper.   At that time, if one asked when a record album review should be published, the answer would be “any time is fine.”   Record companies did not seem to care whether their albums were reviewed prior to release, on the date of release or even days, weeks or months later.   (Today you can find books with recent reviews of record albums that were released decades ago.)

Major publishers have so many different policies on book reviews that it’s a wonder they’ve been able to agree on an International Standard Book Number (ISBN).   One publisher wants no reviews posted prior to the date of release because, in their view, people get angry if they read about a new release and can’t find it at their local Barnes and Noble or favorite independent bookseller.   Another says a review is OK if it is posted one week or less before the release date.   Several publishing houses encourage book reviewers to post their reviews within the first one or two weeks following the book’s release.

If this isn’t confusing enough, a few publishers indicate that they do not embargo reviews.   In other words, if a reviewer has a galley or advance review copy (ARC) of a future release in his/her hands and wants to write about it now, that’s fine.

There’s similar confusion over posting pre-release excerpts; so-called sneak peeks.   Some publishers won’t allow them.   Some will allow them if the reviewer requests permission, and will then respond with specifics as to when the excerpt can be posted online or in print.   Ironically, some of the publishers who do not allow the posting of pre-release excerpts themselves post them on their websites or on online sites which cater to librarians and booksellers!

Confusing, huh?   You bet…

Then we have the policies of book review publications to which reviewers like me submit reviews.   Some want only reviews that they’ve received prior to the book’s release date so that they can post on the date of release.   Some review only new releases (often in hardbound form) but not the subsequent popular re-releases in trade paperback form.   Some, like this publication, review new releases and those re-releases missed the first time around.   It all means that a book reviewer needs something akin to a flow chart to track which policy applies to which publisher, and which policy applies to which publication.   Oh, my!

Why do things have to be so confusing?   I have no idea, except that if a publishing company foots the bill – and assumes all the risks of failure – it is fair to assume that the publisher can call the shots.   However, if I ran a publishing house – let’s call it Brown Cat Books for the purpose of illustration – I would have no problem with reviews of BCB releases running at any time.   Why?   Because from everything I’ve read, publishers must rely on the sale of back catalog books to keep them in business.

Think about high school and college students, and boomers who walk into a Barnes & Noble or community bookstore these days.   How many of them would you guess are buying a book that was released more than a year or two ago?   Perhaps not half of them, but it’s probably a higher number than your first guess.

Despite my view, one source has written that the expiration date for buzz to be generated on a new book is its release date.   In this source’s view, if people are not talking about it – and reading about it – on the first day it is sold, it is not likely to become a best seller; which translates into dead on arrival.   Yes, of course, there are and have been spectacular exceptions to this “rule” – two examples being The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Lovely Bones.   These are popular fiction releases that took months and years to become overnight best sellers.

This reviewer simply wonders sometimes why things are as they are in the publishing trade, but then I can’t complain.   I just need to remember to continuously update my Publishers and Publications Review Policies flow chart.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Written for “The Critical Eye” column.

Pictured:  The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson, which will be released by Shaye Areheart Books on August 3, 2010.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Silent Scream by Karen Rose (Grand Central Publishing)

Justice in June by Barbara Levenson (Oceanview Publishing)

Justice in June and Silent Scream have more in common than alliterative titles.   Each is a mystery/thriller set in a major U.S. city with a female protagonist that is devoted to her profession but has difficulty committing to a permanent relationship.   The cities where the action takes place are Miami, Florida and Minneapolis, Minnesota, respectively.   Both women are well-respected members of their communities.

Mary Magruder Katz is a criminal defense attorney in Miami who briefly struggles with her revulsion at representing a man who is being characterized as a terrorist.   Her current boyfriend is Carlos Martin, a wealthy real estate developer with an excitable Latin-American temperament.  

Detective Olivia Sutherland, over in Minneapolis, is the only female member of the city’s elite homicide squad.   Olivia and her partner are assigned to a construction fire when the charred remains of a teenage girl are found among the ashes.   To complicate matters, Olivia must work with fireman David Hunter while investigating this and similar subsequent fires with murder victims.   David is not just any fireman; he’s a genuine hero who works tirelessly on behalf of battered women and he had a weekend encounter with Olivia that still troubles her after two and a half years.

Here is where the authors’ styles set these books apart.   Barbara Levinson, author of Justice in June, is a member of the judiciary in Miami.   This is her second novel.   The crisp, spare descriptions of the characters and location provide more information about the local weather and scenery than they reveal about the feelings that Mary and Carlos have for each other.   Mary’s lack of true trepidation following an attack and a break-in at her house are confusing.   Levinson’s writing seems to derive from the transcription of a journal or legal case notes.  

The story is engaging from a legal perspective.   It is a book that would make a good selection for a young person who is entertaining thoughts of pursuing a legal career.   However, there are moral challenges to the justice system in this tale that are guaranteed to disillusion the most starry-eyed future attorney or judge.   This reviewer was amazed that a story set in steamy Miami is so dry and passionless.

Karen Rose, the author of Silent Scream, has penned 10 prior novels.   Rose, like Levinson, is a resident of Miami; yet she has elected to write about Minneapolis, a city that to this reviewer seems short on passion with a surplus of lakes.   Rose’s history as a writer goes back to her childhood when she was an avid reader and began writing for her own enjoyment.  

Rose has a well-developed writing style that is lush and highly descriptive.   Her novels are labeled as “romantic suspense.”   I was a bit skeptical about just how romantic the story would be.   Bodice rippers are plentiful but a well-written story is another matter.   This is clearly a book for mature audiences; although, given the sex on TV shows and in movies that teens are now daily exposed to, it is relatively tame.   What’s unexpected is the meticulous character development.   Heroes and villains alike are given ample background, motivation and feelings.

Knowing there are 10 prior books by Karen Rose to read while waiting for her next effort makes the waiting all the better.   Sorry Judge Levinson, this reviewer needs more than just the facts, ma’am.

Take Away:   Silent Scream, in paperback, is the one to read this summer.   Recommended.      

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Book copies were provided by the publishers.   

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Lessons Learned

Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog: The Amazing Adventures of an Ordinary Woman by Lisa Scottoline (St. Martin’s Griffin, $16.99, 320 pages)

my third husband lisa scottoline

Veteran suspense novelist Lisa Scottoline has gathered gems from the “chick wit” that she dishes out in her weekly Philadelphia Inquirer column.   These columns have been augmented with observations on life and family, most notably Mother Mary.

Scottoline has two sides:  the East Coast lawyer and the  Italian-American woman of a certain age, or as she prefers, a woman of an uncertain age.   The author’s impeccable comedic timing can be enjoyed in a wide variety of topics ranging from body parts to Internet passwords.   Lisa – her first name is a must since you really get to know her – is a writer who can turn selecting the paint color for your house into stand-up-worthy humor.

third husband back cover

My Third Husband is packed full of genuine laughter, love, and touching wisdom.   Some book dust jackets promise side-splitting humor only to fall short; however, this book hits a grand slam.   This reader laughed so hard and often that her husband began to wonder what had possessed her.

Recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Another Rookie

The Long Snapper by Jeffrey Marx (Harper One, $24.99, 245 pages)

The Long Snapper would be a charming true story except that we’ve read and seen it before.   In the book and film version of The Rookie (Dennis Quaid starred in the movie), we were told the true story of Jim Morris, a professional baseball player who becomes a school teacher when his athletic career is over.   Years pass before he’s suddenly contacted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who want him to try out for a pitching opening.   He’s undecided but his students encourage him to take the try-out, and this “rookie” returns to “the Show.”

Take the exact same story and substitute the football player Brian Kitchen for Morris and you have The Long Snapper.   Kinchen played pro football for 12 years before losing his job and becoming a school teacher.   Two years pass and then guess what?   Oh, yes, the same thing that happened in The Rookie.   Except that Kinchen is invited to try out for a team that’s two wins away from the Super Bowl.

You can probably guess what the ending is going to be.   Does our hero come through in the Big Game?   The climax will only surprise those who haven’t seen Hoosiers, The Bad News Bears, Invincible or Remember the Titans.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Birds

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

I try to write the books I would love to come upon…   Anne Lamott

I love the way Anne Lamott writes.   She writes like Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America) with a professor’s seriousness about life, but a child’s smile.   Life scares Lamott but she keeps the bogey men away by writing about people who are like her, except that maybe they have just a bit more courage.   Or maybe they don’t.

Imperfect Birds is a novel about a family, about mother Elizabeth Ferguson, her second husband James and her daughter Rosie, a senior in high school in Marin County.   Elizabeth and James worship Rosie as they simultaneously count the days until she’ll leave for college so that they can stop worrying about her.   “…life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection.   It hurt but you had to tough it out.”

Rosie’s been a straight-A student until, as a 17-year-old senior, she begins getting Bs in even her best subjects.   That would not be much of a disappointment for other students, but there’s a reason she’s coming undone.   She’s using drugs, of almost every variety, to the point where even her extremely forgiving mother can no longer ignore what’s happening.   “…(Elizabeth) had a conviction now that when she thought something was going on, it was.”   This also means that a mother’s worst fears are coming true:  “I was afraid of how doomed you would be as a parent.”

The title, of course, refers to imperfect people – people who have lost the ability to fly straight.   Elizabeth is too forgiving of her daughter’s faults for too long.   James is too judgmental and too quick to prescribe a harsh remedy for his stepdaughter’s problems.   Rosie, who lost her father to cancer years before, is young and wants to enjoy life until…   Until she finds that her drug abuse has left her dreamless and with a heart “like a little dead animal.”

Rosie also wants to be loved by someone other than her mother and step-father, which is why she creates fantasies about one of her male instructors and later becomes involved with someone older.   Eventually a decision has to be made…   Will Rosie’s parents save Rosie from herself or will they step aside and let her self-destruct before her life even really begins?

If this was the work of a less-talented writer, the reader might be tempted to take a guess at the ending and put the book down prematurely.   But Lamott is one of the best writers we have – about this there can be little doubt.   So this story feels like a gift – one to be savored and treasured – and will be appreciated by any reader who does not make a claim to perfection in his or her own life.Highly recommended.   An advance review copy was provided by Riverview Books.   Imperfect Birds will be released on April 6, 2010.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.   I’ll meet you there.”   Rumi    

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On Skeleton Hill

Skeleton Hill: An Inspector Peter Diamond Investigation by Peter Lovesey

Peter Diamond, head of the criminal investigations division (CID) for the city of Bath, England stars in this, the tenth book in the British detective series written by Peter Lovesey.   The first few chapters are devoted to setting the stage for a most enjoyable hunt for the facts needed to solve two mysterious murders.   There are two deaths to be investigated – which initially seemed to be unrelated – that were separated by about twenty years.   The first involves a skeleton found in the roots of a landmark tree and the other turns up in a nearby graveyard in a pool of blood.

The mystery opens with a reenactment of a 1643 battle during the Civil War (not ours, theirs) at Lansdown above the city of Bath.   Although the story develops methodically, the reader would be wise to take notes and prepare for what accelerates into a mad dash for the finish line.   Along the way we’re treated to some strictly English terms and eccentricities with a generous side order of correct local history.   All of this serves to make the book feel like a vacation/field trip combined with a really good game of Clue. 

Author Lovesey provides the reader with a full array of suspects, red herrings and human foibles that add up to a very enjoyable read.   This reviewer looks forward to reading the nine other books by Lovesey that preceded Skeleton Hill.

Highly recommended.

Review by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy of Skeleton Hill was provided by Soho Press.   This book is also available as a Kindle Edition download from Amazon.

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Another Book Giveaway!

Yes, we’re still giving away three (3) copies of the amazing book Double Take: A Memoir.   The Double Take  book giveaway contest remains open until midnight this Friday, January 8, 2010 Pacific Standard Time (PST).   To read the contest rules, enter the terms “double take” in the Search It! box to the right and hit enter.

But we’re here announcing a new book giveaway!   Through the courtesy of the publisher Multnomah, we have a copy of The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace for one of our readers.Here is a synopsis of the book –

Among the subjects tackled by The Male Factor are: how men, with rare exceptions, view almost any emotional display as a sign that the person can no longer think clearly – as well as what they perceive to be emotion in the first place (it’s not just crying); why certain trendy clothes that women wear may create a career-sabotaging land mine in terms of how male colleagues perceive them; and the unintentional signals that can change a man’s perception of a woman from assertive and competent to difficult.

Women will likely be surprised, even shocked, by these revelations.   Some may find them challenging.   Yet what they will gain is an invaluable understanding of how their male bosses, colleagues, subordinates, and customers react to a host of situations – as well as the ability to correct common misperceptions.   The Male Factor offers a unique road map to what men in the workplace are thinking, allowing women the opportunity to decide for themselves how to use the insights the author reveals.

Note:  I suspect that this is a book that both men and women will find to be extremely interesting!

We will be giving away one brand new hardbound copy of this 320-page book by Shaunti Feldhahn, author of the  prior bestseller For Women Only.   The Male Factor has a value of $22.99.   In order to enter this contest, just send an e-mail to josephsreviews@gmail.com .   You must submit your entry by 12:00 midnight PST on Saturday, January 30, 2010.   Only readers who live in the continental United States are eligible to enter this particular contest and prior contest winners at this site will not be eligible to win this time around.  

That’s it – Good luck and good reading!

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